Friday, June 3, 2016

Why It’s Important to Write Diverse Characters

by Linda Rodriguez

I’ve thrown another book against the wall—or at least, I’ve wanted to. I’m far too respectful even of bad books to inflict physical damage on them. And this wasn’t a totally bad book. It was completely unrealistic, but unfortunately, it wasn’t set in some fantasy kingdom or far away on another planet. It purported to be about life in a major city in these United States. And it was full of white people. (And heterosexual people and people without disabilities. Also huge blind spots in much of American fiction.)

No one else made even a walk-on in this book, even though the city it was supposedly set in has a diverse population. The protagonist was white. The love interest was white. The friends and confidantes were white. Even the villain was white (and this is where you’ll usually find the people of color in American novels and film… because, of course, all the good guys need to be white). Even the walk-on characters were white. Even the maid in the hotel seen for two sentences.

One would think that such a novel is a complete anomaly anymore. Unfortunately, although they’re not as plentiful as they once were, such novels can still be found. What we’re more likely to find, however, are novels like the recent big prizewinner (almost 800 pages in length), which contained two non-white characters only, both servants and about as unrealistic as they could be. (A Caribbean housekeeper with children of her own to support and care for who insists on continuing to take care of the wealthy white family for free when they lose their money, neglecting her own kids? I’m sure many wealthy white people have fantasies of such dedication to themselves and selfless service by their servants, but I can’t think of any working person like that in reality. Most people are working for money to take care of their own families, and when the money goes, they have to find another job to pay their own bills.)

Novels, films, and television shows with only minor, peripheral characters of color—or villains, all non-white, while the good guys are all white—still abound. And most of them are extremely unrealistic. Perhaps in particular isolated rural areas or very small towns, such depictions might be realistic, though many rural areas and small towns now boast large immigrant populations. Books set in larger towns and cities must show the diversity of the population to be believable.

About the only place you can find an all-white cast of characters any longer in reality is in wealthy white suburbs where housing restrictions keep others from moving there—and usually in such places, non-white people are mowing lawns, taking care of children, taking care of security, and many other duties. And such suburbs are part of metropolitan areas full of diverse people, where the shortest drive for a bite to eat or to fill up the gas tank will bring the populace in contact with people from different backgrounds.

This is a situation Sisters in Crime has recognized, and the organization is bringing lots of help to its members at this year’s SinC Into Great Writing workshop in connection with Bouchercon in New Orleans on Wednesday, September 14. The topic is “Doing Diversity Right,” and participants will hear from instructors like the great Walter Mosley (of Easy Rawlins fame), Greg Herren, Cindy Brown, Frankie Bailey, and me. At the end, all of us—and some other industry professionals—will answer any and all questions participants put to us about the problem of writing diverse characters and backgrounds and doing it right.


The United States is truly a melting pot, full of a rich variety of people from many backgrounds, in many physical and mental conditions, and of many sexual orientations. Take a look around at the audience at an event or at the customers in a big restaurant, and you’ll see the diversity of people that surrounds you. When we read, we expect to see a similar range of characters, or we begin to feel something’s off with the book. When we write our own books, we need to portray that variety, or risk more and more people throwing our books against the wall, literally or figuratively. 

7 comments:

  1. This sounds like a great workshop, Linda. Any chance it will be recorded? Unfortunately, we're not able to attend Bouchercon this year.

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  2. I know that the presenters will do their best to encourage writers to create authentic characters. However, in a country that is more segregated now than when I grew up during the pre-civil rights era, that might be a tall order. If you don't know the people you want to write about, research is only going to take you so far. Not to mention, many white writers (as well as some writers from other other cultures who have been inculcated with anti-black and brown messages from American film, television, and news) will have to unlearn all of the stereotypes they've been fed and recognize their own biases. Really interrogating what they think, believe, and feel about people from other races. And yes non-cis and disabled folks, who may also be people of color. What I hope is that more PoC will write and published in all genres. As you know, we know white culture inside and out. We have thousands of stories and characters to draw from, in addition to our own experiences. The reverse is, unfortunately, not true. Just a reader tired of poor rep from nice people who haven't had an interaction with a person who didn't look like them since high school, college, or ever.

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  3. It's hard to believe that white writers only have peripheral acquaintances of color, and that is why they can't include color in their books.

    Great blog, Linda!

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  4. Mary Lee, I believe SinC does record these workshops and put them on the Members-Only part of the national website.

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  5. Debra, I agree with you about needing many more writers of color/with disabilities/LGBTQ/etc. published. SinC National has actually spearheaded an ambitious program toward that end, even before this workshop. Watch for this year's publishing industry report to come out from them. They focused on non-mainstream writers--and actually consulted as many of them as they could find in the mystery field. All this is just the beginning. I'm so impressed with what this organization that has a tiny handful of non-mainstream members has voluntarily undertaken to try to diversify their membership and their profession and provide opportunities to POC, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people and more.

    But it's also important for established writers (read: white and/or non-disabled and/or heterosexual) to learn more about other parts of the population and write them into their books--AND do it accurately, not relying on old, false stereotypes. We need both streams in the diversity effort to work together.

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  6. Reine, it is. But I have to say, I've been impressed in general with the mystery field and the willingness of most of these writers to learn, as opposed to, say, the literary field where I also have a lot of experience.

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  7. In my Rocky Bluff P.D. series, the police chief is female and black, one detective is black, a Sergeant if Hispanic, another white sergeant has a Down's baby. Since we have all kinds of mixes in my family, I don't even think about it. I also had a care home for developmentally disabled women--and I've included people with developmental disabilities in several books.

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